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Selling Illusions: The Cult Of Multiculturalism In Canada

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Since he immigrated to Canada almost three decades ago, Neil Bissoondath has consistently refused the role of the ethnic, and sought to avoid the burden of hyphenation - a burden that would label him as an East Indian-Trinidadian-Canadian living in Quebec. Bissoondath argues that the policy of multiculturalism, with its emphasis on the former or ancestral homeland and its insistence that There is more important than Here, discourages the full loyalty of Canada's citizens. Through the 1971 Multiculturalism Act, Canada has sought to order its population into a cultural mosaic of diversity and tolerance. Seeking to preserve the heritage of Canada's many peoples, the policy nevertheless creates unease on many levels, transforming people into political tools and turning historical distinctions into stereotyped commodities. It encourages exoticism, highlighting the differences that divide Canadians rather than the similarities that unite them.

Selling Illusions is Neil Bissoondath's personal exploration of a politically motivated public policy with profound private ramifications - a policy flawed from its inception but nonetheless implemented with unmatched zeal.

252 pages, Paperback

First published September 9, 1994

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About the author

Neil Bissoondath

17 books17 followers
Neil Devindra Bissoondath, novelist, short-story writer, essayist (b at Arima, Trinidad and Tobago 19 Apr 1955). He attended St Mary's College in Port of Spain before emigrating to Canada in 1973, when he became a student at York University (BA 1977). After graduating, he began teaching English as a second language and French in Toronto. Bissoondath began writing short stories in the late seventies, and attended the Banff School of Fine Arts in 1983. He credits his uncle, author V.S. Naipaul, for providing inspiration. Bissoondath's first book, a collection of short stories called Digging Up the Mountains (1985), deals with feelings of cultural alienation, exile and domestic upheaval - themes he has continued to explore in his other writings. The book was a commercial and critical success, enabling Bissoondath to leave teaching for a number of years and devote himself to writing full-time. In 1995 he relocated to Québec City, where he teaches Creative Writing at Université Laval.
Bissoondath published a second collection of short stories, On the Eve of Uncertain Tomorrows, in 1990. Most of his fiction has taken the form of novels, beginning with A Casual Brutality (1988), set in the fictional Caribbean republic of Casaquemada. The Innocence of Age (1993) is the story of intergenerational tensions in an increasingly racist Toronto. Bissoondath's novels often focus on characters confronting their respective pasts. The protagonist in GOVERNOR GENERAL'S AWARD nominee The Worlds Within Her (1998) returns to her Caribbean birthplace in order to deliver her mother's ashes. In Doing the Heart Good (2002), an elderly anglophone Montrealer reevaluates his life after losing his possessions to an arsonist. The Unyielding Clamour of the Night (2005) deals with a young schoolteacher who leaves a privileged upbringing to encounter political, religious, and racial unrest in a fictional island state modelled on Sri Lanka.
Bissoondath's most controversial and best-selling book is Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada (1994, rev. 2002). In this nonfiction work, Bissoondath criticizes the 1971 MULTICULTURALISM Act for emphasizing differences rather than similarities amongst the country's various ethnic groups. He argues that the country's multicultural policies, though well-intentioned, have only encouraged the isolation and stereotyping of cultural groups.

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Displaying 1 - 7 of 7 reviews
Profile Image for Rowena.
500 reviews2,438 followers
November 11, 2013
“And few silences are as loaded in this country as the one encasing the cult that has grown up around our policy of multiculturalism.” - Neil Bissooondath, Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada

Well, this was a very controversial book, one I’m sure not everyone will like but it speaks a lot of truth, in my opinion. I came across the author while researching a paper on pluralism in Canada during my undergrad. Canada has a policy on multiculturalism, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1971, (see http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/multicul...) but according to the author, the policy, despite being one of Canada’s selling points , does next to nothing for real social cohesion in the country.

Bissoondath is definitely an ideal person to write this book; a Trinidadian-born Canadian of Indian heritage living in Quebec. The autobiographical element of the book resonated with me. The introduction to Canada’s race relations is important because it’s something that’s not talked about (see Chinese head tax, the Komagata Maru Incident, Native Canadian history, etc.). Despite this, I actually do not see the modern-day racism that Bissoondath talks about so vehemently.

I did like that Bissoondath challenged my thinking in several ways. His views on cultural appropriation and affirmative actions were enlightening. I also like that he felt he had to critique the multiculturalism policy. As he said, “No policy can be written in stone; no policy is immune to evolution.”

It's too late to say I hope that nobody calls Bissoondath anti-Canadian, as it has already been done numerous times. I find that quite unfortunate as he is simply challenging people to think critically. Yes, we are proud of our mosaic society in Canada but it doesn’t mean we can’t criticize the government using that to further their own ends. (See BC Premier Christy Clark's ethnic votes scandal http://www.news1130.com/2013/02/28/ch...)

Great book for anyone interested in diversity issues.
Profile Image for Alex Strohschein.
685 reviews96 followers
August 19, 2016
As a minority as a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant straight conservative male (or, WASPSCM) in Canada, I have been ruminating quite a bit about multiculturalism. Based on key parts of my identity, I often feel as if SJWs perceive me to be endowed with "privilege" and thus I must continually give up this (non-existent) privilege in order to become amenable to a "progressive" and tolerant society. I was looking forward to reading Neil Bissoondath's "Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada" but after finishing it I find I have a very mixed reaction to it. I would give it between a 2-2.5/5.

On the one hand, Bissoondath, drawing on personal experience in some cases, bitingly cuts through the absurd excesses of political correctness, mollycoddling and affirmative action. He deplores those who seek to silence people because they are not the right skin colour (for instance, First Nations activists claim non-First Nations authors cannot write compelling stories about First Nations because that is not part of their heritage or, likewise, white women cannot write about black women). He notes that in a pluralistic, multicultural society where interracial relationships are quite common, it is oddly antiquated to insist that, as in the highly-publicized case of Elijah Van de Perre, a child is "black" because their father is, even when the other half of their genetic make-up come from a white mother. Is Elijah more "black" than "white?" Bissoondath eviscerates the paltry visage of multiculturalism that only skims the surface of an ethnicity that is largely based on stereotype. Writing of "ethnic cultural festivals" he remarks:

"Such displays, dependent as they are on superficialities, reduce cultures hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years old to easily digested stereotypes. One's sense of Ukrainian culture is restricted to perogies and Cossack dancing; Greeks, we learn, are all jolly Zorbas, and Spaniards dance flamenco between bouts of 'Viva España!' Germans gulp beer, sauerkraut and sausages while belting out Bavarian drinking songs; Italians make good ice cream, great coffee and all have connections to shady godfathers. And the Chinese continue to be a people who form conga lines under dragon costumes and serve good, cheap food in slightly dingy restaurants." (p. 77-78).

Thus, even while many Canadians claim they applaud multiculturalism, most are content to just consume ethnic cuisine (sushi, donairs, etc...), enjoy ethnic dances and music (bhangra, tango, etc...) and so on, without really learning anything considerable about language, history, custom, etc...Bissoondath also makes an excellent point regarding politics. Despite the fact that individuals must show proficiency in English or French in order to become citizens, political parties, desperate for votes, discourage ethnic minorities from having to exercise their ability with one of Canada's official languages by providing election flyers in minority languages such as Mandarin, Tagalog, or Spanish (p. 228-229). If our official languages are English and French, then conduct politics in those languages. This irks me because many larger ethnic communities often don't reciprocate by providing translation for English or French-speakers. It also bothers me when proficiency in one of the non-official languages is key in securing employment for a job (I am pleased by friend got a job as a branch manager at a bank, but one of the reasons was because he could speak Cantonese in an neighbourhood with a large Chinese clientele; if another, equally-qualified but non-Chinese language speaker had applied for the position, would they have stood a chance?). This concerns me because in the public square, communication is essential.

Bissoondath champions the individual over the collective, stating, "The multicultural society has tended to diminish the role and autonomy of the individual by insisting on placing individuals within preconceived, highly stereotypical confines" (p. 224). Bissoondath wants people to be viewed and regarded not on the basis of what they are by virtue of birth (black, white, yellow, etc...) but WHO they are as human beings. On pages 195-196 he does an excellent job in pointing out the sheer hypocrisy of Canadians who self-righteously chide America while taking advantage of American protection, entertainment, etc...

Bissoondath strongly rebukes the policy of multiculturalism because he believes it encourages immigrants to maintain ties to their homeland. He remarks that this often extends beyond generations, so that even Canadians of Croatian background but who were born in Canada still felt called to fight for their "homeland" (Croatia) during the Yugoslav Wars. He wants Canadians to be simply "Canadian," not "Indo-Canadian" or "African-Canadian."

And yet. And yet I don't know if I agree with Bissoondath entirely on calling ethnic minorities to abandon their heritage in favour of the Canadian zeitgeist. I think one can only truly do this if one thinks Canadian culture is perfect, flawless. This is uncritical and naive. Immigrants may wish to come to Canada knowing it is better than the impoverished or war-torn regions they are fleeing from, but they may also not agree with "Canadian values." I hope that immigrants from countries that have rich traditions of respect for elders don't adopt the "Canadian values" that have paved the way for assisted suicide. At the same time, I understand the caution and reluctance some have of fully accepting ethnic customs that seem at odds with Canadian values; I don't think female genital mutilation should be an endorsed, protected practice. This is admittedly a complex issue.

I think it is further complicated when it comes to tacking on "religion" as simply one aspect of an ethnicity's culture. Religion transcends ethnicity so that there are Catholic Cree, Quebecois, French, Polish, Argentinians, Gambians, Koreans, Filipinos, etc...(it is, as the Burlap to Cashmere song goes "the other country"). Religion, not "being Canadian" or "being American," is the really power that can bind diversity together. Bissoondath, perhaps betraying a blithe religious passivity warmly approves of former United Church of Canada Moderator Bruce McLeod's claim that there are multiple ways to true religion (p. 54). If you are truly convinced of a religion's EXCLUSIVE truth claims (be it Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, etc...), you cannot approve of a laissez-faire pantheism or universalism.

Bissoondath is equal in his criticism of the left and the right but he is ultimately pragmatic and thus easily finds tradition a thing to uproot and mould and modify to the trends of the present. Having moved away from his homeland as soon as he reached adulthood, its understandable why he is so easily dismissive of preserving ethnic tradition but when he writes of his love for Canada, it's also not necessarily that of its past but of its present (a present only secured by certain historical conditions) and of its landscape. Here, I think Bissoondath is rather guilty of the superficiality he deplores when it comes to multiculturalism. He seems to want loyalty to Canada to be the greater unifier, merging all ethnicities, even as he recognizes the role ethnicity plays in shaping us, into just THE "Canadian" ethnicity, but I think he is more critical of multiculturalism than visionary regarding what Canada is. Bissoondath's glowing admiration of Canada is based only on the present, ethnically-diverse reality of the country, not its historic white, Christian heritage that was the strong majority demographic before the end of the Second World War. Does he laud Quebec only as it is today or the province pre-Quiet Revolution?

Essentially, I appreciate Bissoondath's take-down of extreme political (ethnic!) correctness and the superficiality of much of our multiculturalism but I think he is too optimistic and uncritical of modern Canadian nationhood as infallible and it is not necessarily worthy of our total fealty if we think there are aspects of it that deserve contention and criticism. There are Western values held in Canada that are morally superior to Third World values and that should be affirmed but the opposite is true as well.
Profile Image for Andrew Griffith.
Author 6 books9 followers
October 10, 2012
Bissoondath perceptively notes some of the absurdities of extreme multiculturalism, the complexity of culture, identity and ethnicity, and the paradoxes for creativity, again when taken to the extreme. One of the better quotes on the complexity of ethnicity and its relation to individuals:

"My point is simple, but it is one usually ignored by multiculturalism and its purveyors – for to recognize the complexity of ethnicity, to acknowledge the wild variance within ethnic groups, would be to render itself and its aims absurd. The individuals who form a group the “ethnics” who create a community, are frequently people of vastly varying composition. Shared ethnicity does not entail unanimity of vision. If the individual is not to be betrayed, a larger humanity must prevail over the narrowness of ethnicity.

To preserve, enhance and promote the “multicultural heritage” of Canada, multiculturalism must work against forces more insistent than any government policy. If a larger humanity does not at first prevail, time and circumstance will inevitably ensure that it does."

Bissoondath may overstate the effects of time and circumstance in today’s age of cheap travel, free communications, and increased targeted segmentation. But even within the frame of multiculturalism, he does not acknowledge that Canadian multiculturalism always had a strong integrative intent (dating from Book IV of the Bi and Bi Commission), in contrast to Europe, where immigration policies (guest workers), lack of immigration culture and identity, and greater traditional ethnic identification with nationality, had a vision more of communities living side-by-side, as well as overstating the difference between the US and Canada, where the ‘melting pot’ and ‘cultural mosaic’ labels are overstated.

And if the price of any public policy is the risk of extremism, likely better to have the Canadian variant, leaning to over accommodation, than the European variant, leaning to intolerance at best, racism and discrimination at worst.

For a more nuanced view, Review of Pax Ethnica by Will Kymlicka, which notes that success in multiculturalism is not tolerance and the absence of violence, but more positive integration, at the group as well as at the individual level:

"At their best, these cases go beyond mere tolerance or bare co-existence to include positive elements of inter-group solidarity, and this is what makes them harbingers of a better society. The various groups are committed to living together in justice, and to sharing fairly economic opportunities, political representation and cultural recognition."
Profile Image for Heather.
972 reviews27 followers
April 4, 2016
I don't agree with everything he has to say, but he makes his case clearly and with tons of examples. This books definitely makes me think. The one thing that really rang hollow to me is the idea that all writers are completely capable of writing characters of every demographic. Some are, and many do the research to do it really well. But I've read lots of books by male authors where women are fucktoys, damsels in distress, and occasionally elevated to the status of plot device. I have yet to read a book by a female author where the most prominent male character could be replaced by a sexy lamp.
Profile Image for Tiyahna Ridley-Padmore.
Author 1 book50 followers
December 30, 2020
Published in 1994, Neil Bissoondath's Selling Illusions became one of the most prominent voices of dissent against tenants of Canada’s multiculturalism. The author argues that the Multiculturalism Act is misguided and works to further separate Canadians rather than bring them together. Although an Indo-Trinidadian immigrant, Bissoondath’s adopts the position that instead of multiculturalism, Canadians should work to co-create a shared culture.

I'm not the intended audience for this book. My views on the value of ethnicity and race in Canadian society differ tremendously from the beliefs held by Bissoondath. Where Bissoondath’s argument rests on the assumption that less emphasis should be placed on maintaining racial distinctions, I adopt the contrary position that visibility of racial distinction is especially important in Canada’s diverse society. Overall, I didn't agree with much of what this book offered or how it was presented. That said, I appreciated some of Bissoondath's critiques such as his reflections on the hypocrisy of multiculturalism in Canada – one that selectively ignores and extenuates distinctions of ethnicity in its narrative.
Profile Image for Ross MacLellan.
53 reviews2 followers
June 5, 2021
While he makes some interesting points, I disagree with Neil Bissoondath on many wider political points so it's hard for me to really take anything from this book.

I agree that Canada's multiculturalism policy is used to hide the realities of Canadian state violence and racism, but this is true of many of Canada's policies that use flowery rhetoric to hide exploitation and imperialism. Bissoondath frames the Multicultural Act as Pierre Trudeau's play to downplay Quebec's claims as an independent, unique and constitutionally separate entity within Canada, which I do find compelling. I can also see the limits of the multicultural policy in the 'folklorization' of cultures in Canada, which freezes cultures in traditional dances and foods that Bissoondath compares to Disney - entertaining and sanitized. However, Canadian publishing (and all arts generally) being so dependent on government funding, the Canadian Government has funded a lot of really good creative products by what Bissoondath calls 'ethnics', and these writers/artists have absolutely transcended tired cultural stereotypes. So the point about 'folklorization' is a mixed bag, I feel.

My issues with this book mainly stem from the fact that this book has the kind of liberal brainworms worldview of the time (2001), and Bissoondath really does bring out all the greatest hits:

-The idea that America reluctantly accepted its power as a global leader with an "international responsibility" after the Second World War

-Focusing on cultural concerns (individual drives, hard work) and dismissing economic or structural problems as being whiny or selfish.

-Canada deserving 'respect' as a nation, and having a 'fabric of our society to uphold', but it isn't clear what it would mean if this society were to 'unravel'. I doubt that Sikhs and Hindus will start a civil war in Canada, and I really just don't know what the stakes are that seem to be so high.

-Addressing history, but being very clear that it only holds people back and everybody should move on from the past as soon as possible (he says that ethnic groups (Africans, Italians, Germans, Chinese) seeking reparations for the actions of the Canadian state "just want to profit from history", and stresses that they should focus on educational and societal opportunities instead. To which I respond, yes, but money would be very helpful to people whose communities were burnt down and assets seized decades ago).

- Taking counter arguments to insane extremes. When he mentions any ethnic or cultural interest groups (like a Black Womens Law Society), he says that this sort of racial thinking is just like Mein Kampf or Apartheid South Africa, "no matter who's calling for it". Obviously this kind of debate completely destroys any nuance in the conversation when you call your opponent a Nazi, and he does it maybe four or five times. Also, Canada has been governed by WASP ethnic and cultural interest groups since long before its founding, and now they are kicking away the ladder and calling for a 'post-racial society'. Give me a break.

In conclusion, this kind of finger-wagging stuff is tiring, and this book just convinced me that there are things I don't need to weigh in on as a white guy. For example, Bissoondath talks about Writing Thru Race, a conference for Indigenous and non-white Canadian authors to discuss, share experiences, do workshops, engage with each other as a community with no white authors in the space, because then the participants don't have to worry about white authors getting huffy, defensive and shitty over certain topics. Now of course there was a minor culture war over this, but really, why would it matter to white people at all? This isn't a free speech issue - it's just decency, and it isn't a big deal. If a conference of our exalted multicultural citizens could fracture our society, I bet it wasn't that strong of a society to begin with. Get over it.

Profile Image for Étienne-Alexandre.
280 reviews12 followers
August 10, 2020
Certainement pas dénué d’intérêt parce que transgressif dans le contexte canadien, mais somme toute banal en 2020 et au Québec, alors que le multiculturalisme est une politique de plus en plus remise en question.
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